Don’t make the same BIG Fat mistake I made! Avoid Low-Fat Diet Risk for Cyclists!
“He’s not starving. He’s a cyclist,” was the answer my family doctor gave the alarmed radiologist when he called with the news of my abdominal scan. My stomach had been acting up, so she ordered the test to rule out serious issues. I’m sure she didn’t expect this, but she wasn’t surprised.
Under findings, Bowel, it read: Decreased sensitivity for a full evaluation of the bowel secondary to lack of visceral fat, with a significant impression of minimal subcutaneous fat.
The radiologist reading the scan told my doctor he’d rarely seen a scan like mine and wanted her to know. My doctor is an endurance athlete who knows me, which tempered the reaction. Nonetheless, it was a wake-up call. If an amateur cyclist like me could present this way, how about the others I race with or who compete at higher levels?
An Unhealthy Relationship With Fat
My strained relationship with fat—food in general—began in junior high school when, in a formidable attempt to transform my lifestyle towards health and fitness, I picked up a copy of “Eat To Win” by Dr. Robert Haas (Great book! It’s not his fault!). I poured over the pages, word for word, and in my tunnel view, one key takeaway stuck with me.
Fat is the enemy of health and athletic success, and I must avoid it at all costs. In addition to the negative stigma that surrounded me in the media at the time, it was a numbers game—fat has five more calories per gram than carbs and protein. I could eat double the amount of the latter two.
As I tend to do, the tenet morphed into a compulsion, and I systematically rid my diet of fat and my home of anything that had fat in it. I got lean and looked good, I felt okay, and all was good in my inadequately educated mind. It wasn’t until much later in life that it became clear that it wasn’t.
What is Fat, and What Does it Do That’s So Great?
To understand its importance, we need to know a bit more about it. In basic chemical terms, fats are long-chain molecules that store energy. We convert excess calories from the food we eat into fat reserves composed of cells called adipocytes.
Individual adipocytes swell and shrink as necessary, and multiple cells together form adipose tissue. These fat deposits are beneath our skin and in the recesses between our organs and have several significant roles beyond simply storing energy, including:
- Insulating us from the cold and fluctuating temperatures.
- Cushioning our joints, the soles of our feet, our palms, and other bony prominences from impact.
- Helping to hold our organs in place.
- The supply of blood vessels and nerves produces many hormones.
- Communicating energy levels to regulate digestion, appetite, and behavior with our brains.
The fat in our bodies consists of two primary types—White and Brown. White adipocytes (adipose tissue IS fat—adipocytes are fat cells) mainly store fat and contain specialized immune cells with past infection-fighting properties.
Brown cells are rich with mitochondria and tiny fat droplets, and their appearance derives from the energy conversion that drives our metabolism, movement, and body heat.
We accumulate and grow fat cells as we mature, and the number of cells doesn’t change in adult life, regardless of diet or exercise. Adipocytes can expand and contract, dependent on energy availability, but getting rid of them once you have them is impossible.
Despite being distributed throughout the body, the growing thought among experts is that adipose tissue is a body organ because it plays an essential role in influencing energy requirements and coordinating metabolism.
Although fats have more calories than carbohydrates and protein, they are slower to oxidize, making them essential slow burners during steady-state exercise.
The Risks of Having Too Little Fat
The adverse health consequences of excessive fat and obesity are a worldwide epidemic that no one should ignore. Extreme diets of fewer than 10 percent of calories from fat have equally disastrous long-term effects, and endurance athletes are at high-risk.
Fat is an essential macronutrient responsible for countless bodily functions. When we don’t have enough, it wreaks havoc on our bodies and causes detrimental long and short-term effects. According to exercise metabolism expert Dr. Adam Upshaw, fat is vital to everyone.
“The idea of good vs. bad fats is a little misnomer. We should regularly consume nutritious fats for proper cellular function and structure, energy, hormonal processes, and transport of vitamins, among others. For cyclists, specifically, dietary fat contributes total caloric consumption and thus helps maintain proper body weight.”
Too little dietary fat can leave you tired and hungry, cause you to lose hair and dry skin, be in a fog, have achy joints, and get sick more often. Suppose you don’t eat enough fat to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. In that case, the adverse health effects are dire, including vision deficits, low bone density, fractures, diminished immune response, muscle and nerve damage, and significant bleeding and bruising.
“Adipose tissue is necessary for fuel optimization, thermoregulation, immunity, and other vital functions for everyone. Too much fatty tissue increases body weight, possibly negatively impacting cycling performance. Too little adipose tissue may compromise proper fuel utilization during athletic performance,” notes Dr. Upshaw.
How Much is The Right Amount?
It depends upon the cyclists’ goals, according to Dr. Upshaw. “If one is cycling primarily for body composition changes, nutritious fats can make up anywhere between 30-50% of one’s diet. For the well-trained competitive cyclist closely monitoring their total kcal intake, a large percentage of fat may comprise other macronutrient intakes. For example, too much fat may compromise one’s ability to attain optimal carbohydrate and protein intake for maximum performance and recovery.”
Although he quickly points out that it’s difficult to define optimal and individual to the athlete, “Generally for a biological male elite endurance athlete, a body fat percentage between 5 and low teens would be considered average. Mid to high teens to low 20s for biological female athletes.”
Do I have evidence that eating too little fat or being excessively lean was the root of any health or performance issues? Well, kind of. I could check several, if not all, of the boxes above over my cycling years, but I can put my finger on one thing in particular.
I won only one “Big” race in my life, and it came early in my amateur career when my body weight and fat percentages were at their peak. In an ill-advised attempt to achieve marginal gains, I became increasingly strict with my diet, specifically fat. I came close a few times but never reached the podium’s top step again in such a dominant fashion. My health gradually deteriorated, despite my attempts to rationalize it away, and so did my performance. It took years to climb out of the hole I dug myself.
Anecdotally, since I’ve committed to sensible fat intake, I’ve felt better, and my performance has improved. I rode 3,900 miles across the country in the Summer of 2022 and didn’t come near bonking–not once. There is storage in my batteries now. Don’t make the same BIG FAT mistake I made.
Did you have an unhealthy relationship with fat? What did you do about it? Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!